My favourite room: Renovating a cottage in Rathmines
On her return from New York, designer Olwen McAuliffe fell for a tiny rundown cottage in Dublin 6, and, despite being warned off by one surveyor, set about lovingly restoring it. Edited by Mary O'Sullivan. Photography by Tony Gavin
Homeowners go through the gamut of emotions when their houses are being renovated. Anxiety, fear and dread are fairly standard, given the amounts of money at stake, but the upside is the excitement at seeing your hopes and ideas translated into your dream home.
Of course, the more you input in terms of research ideas and detail, the more invested you are. Suddenly, seemingly tiny details, such as finding the right light switches and window clasps, become the focus of your life, pushing out normal things, such as social life, food and fashion. You've heard of bridezilla – there should be a similar word for the person who becomes a bit fanatical about home decor.
Pretty, blonde Olwen McAuliffe, admits she was obsessive in her selection of materials, and cites as an example the choice of tile in the bathroom. She picked subway tiles for the walls and decided, as a contrast, to go for the tiny black-and-white penny tiles – almost like mosaic tiles – on the floor, which she had seen in Charles de Gaulle airport.
That's the other thing about people who become immersed in doing up their homes – they're constantly switched on to the house and so pick up ideas in unusual places. "I was so excited about the tiles that, the day after the tiler did them, I drove over at 6am to the house to see how they'd turned out. I couldn't believe it – he hadn't lined them up properly. They come on squares, but they have to be laid so that you can't see that, but he hadn't done that. They all had to be chiselled up and more ordered," Olwen laments.
For others, the tiles, as they had been put down, would have been acceptable, but not for Olwen – for her, the devil is in the detail.
She admits she is a person who gets zealous about things. However, as Olwen says herself, a lot of that is due to her training – she works as a designer with Dunnes Stores, and every detail of every garment is carefully thought out.
"I do fashion design with Gallery, one of the Dunnes Stores labels. I come up with the trends and decide the colour stories and, basically, design the collection," Olwen explains.
She is passionate about her work, yet she didn't opt for fashion design straight after finishing school at Alexandra College. Her obsession in those days was Spain, and she went to Trinity to study Spanish and sociology.
"I had a great time at Trinity, but, after all the fun, I decided I wanted to get into fashion. I had always been interested in it. My mum made all our clothes and I was always in fabric shops with her, so I did three years at the Grafton Academy," the thirtysomething from Malahide says.
She's obviously got talent – immediately after graduation, Olwen was chosen for an internship by the Ralsey Group, America's leading knitwear supplier – and she lived in New York for three years before returning to Dublin.
"I loved New York and I miss it, but – I suppose it sounds mad, but I was living in a tiny space and I missed the fresh air of Dublin.
"I'm back five years, and I never really feel that it was the wrong decision to come back," Olwen muses.
"When I went, it was the boom here and I really thought people had lost the run of themselves. Dublin was losing its charm. When I came back, it was the height of the recession and I think people are forced to be more creative, in restaurants and shops, and the like.
"I definitely think the humour and camaraderie is coming back," she adds.
On her return, Olwen freelanced as a designer with Penneys for two years, before getting her job with Dunnes 18 months ago.
Around the same time, she started looking for a house. "I've always wanted my own place," she says. "I've rented for so long and I've never really invested in any of the rentals, and I always had loads of ideas for the kind of house I wanted."
Last summer, Olwen finally found the perfect house for her budget. "I was really lucky. It had already been sold, but the sale fell through and the vendors were anxious to sell," she explains. She was seduced by the house she eventually bought – a double-fronted, two-bedroom, terraced cottage in Dublin 6 – because of its extremely high-ceilinged living room to the front of the house.
But it was in a terrible condition and one surveyor even told her not to touch it. "It needed everything – new wiring, new plumbing, there wasn't even hot water in the bathroom. It was really dark and he said, 'Don't buy it', but I had a gut feel about it. It was what I wanted," Olwyn says. "I wanted to put my own stamp on my home and this was, more or less, a dream come true, as I had to do everything.
"So, I didn't have anything to feel guilty about – you know, if it had a perfectly good kitchen, but not what I wanted, then I would have felt guilty about ripping it out."
She got Optimise Design to make up drawings. They drew up three possible plans for her, and she got a great builder to interpret her choice of design.
"Rob Morgan was the first builder who came back with a proper quote, and he was great," she says. "Everything went according to plan."
The original house had the high-ceilinged living room to the front and a dark, flat-roofed kitchen and bathroom to the back. The kitchen and bathroom were torn down and a new extension was built. Velux windows were fitted and the effect now is of a light-filled, open-plan living/dining/kitchen, with the kitchen to the back.
As the space for the bathroom was tiny, Olwen had a wet room installed.
The two bedrooms remained the same as before, though, of course, she redecorated them to her own taste.
There are white walls everywhere, except the contrast wall at the back of the kitchen, and an ingenious laminate floor throughout, which looks like limed oak. "That was thanks to the builder. I wanted real wood floors, but, because the ground was uneven, it would have been a huge job, and he suggested these laminate boards that clip on.
"I resisted and resisted, and, finally, he dragged me to Floor Design to look at the laminates, and he was right. They work and they were ridiculously cheap," Olwen marvels, giving credit where it's due. She also credits the builder with what is the main feature of the living area, other than the high ceiling – the exposed brick wall.
"It was the best surprise. It was all plastered up and he knocked in all the plasterboard and found all that exposed brick." That was the good thing.
Unfortunately, the builder repointed it in a dark-red shade, which was not to Olwen's taste at all. "The builder was devastated that I didn't like it. I decided then to have it painted white, like the rest of the walls, but he managed to restore it and put it back the way it was."
Note to future house obsessives – it's good to maintain cordial relations at all times with your builder; then they will do anything you want, as Olwen can tell you.
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